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Modest Musorgsky and 'Boris Godunov': Myths, Realities, Reconsiderations.

Modest Musorgsky and 'Boris Godunov': Myths, Realities, Reconsiderations. By CARYL EMERSON and ROBERT WILLIAM OLDANI. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994. xiii + 339 pp. 40 [pounds sterling].

Some readers may experience a sense of deja vu on encountering this book. Those who meet it in this journal may recall its first author's 'Boris Godunov': Transpositions of a Russian Theme, published by Indiana University Press in 1986. To others, it will bring to mind a number of contributions by the second author to Festschriften, Nineteenth-Century Music, and The Opera Quarterly. By combining the skills of the literaturoved with those of the musicologist, however, the volume has much to offer all interested in every aspect of this important Russian opera.

Each scholar has several chapters more or less to him or herself, though the contents are of course coordinated and include cross-references. The historical Tsar Boris (as far as he can be discerned), the figure as evoked by Karamzin and Pushkin, the composer's route to the first and second versions of the work, its synopsis, and two influential productions form the subject of Part I, 'Background'. Part II, entitled 'Entr'acte', offers documents on Boris Godunov and the censor plus a selection of critical texts ranging from Cui and Laroche in 1874 to Sergei Slonimskii in 1989. In Part iii, 'Interpretation', libretto and music are considered in greater detail, with a final brief and ephemeral chapter on this opera in 'the 1980s and beyond'. An annotated discography and select bibliography are appended to the text, which is illustrated with sixteen black-and-white reproductions, mostly of singers or sets from the opera's stagings.

The authors prove expert guides through the thicket of versions of the score. Besides the composer's own two (of 1868-69 and 1871-73), there are two by Rimsky-Korsakov, re-orchestrations by Shostakovich and Karol Rathaus, and a number of versions in which all the music Musorgsky wrote on the subject is amalgamated to form a 'supersaturated' version. The path is cleared in the table listing for comparison Musorgsky's versions of the opera (pp. 63-65). The current revisionist view of Musorgsky, in which he is regarded as a composer who might after all have known what he wanted and what he was doing, makes it more likely that we shall in future see and hear either his own first or second version, as is being done in the new Russian collected edition of his compositions.

When so much of what has been written about this composer has centred on these different versions and on condemning Rimsky-Korsakov's activities, it is refreshing to find Robert Oldani here discussing the course of the music as if it were a matter of consequence. In the penultimate chapter he puts forward eminently reasonable opinions about Musorgsky's musical scene-construction and exploitation of particular key-associations to complement the more familiar recurring motives identified with the dramatis personae or with some concept. It is a matter of regret only that the musical examples appearing in that chapter had not been more conveniently placed for their first treatment in Chapter 3. It is good to see Musorgsky being parted from Stasov's Procrustean bed (as he is in Richard Taruskin's recent Musorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992)), so that, for instance, the possibility of influence from the anathematized Verdi can be allowed; Oldani's phrase about Musorgsky 'grafting theatricality onto kuchkism' (p. 258) is a good insight. The text maintains a high degree of accuracy, though there are slips in musical examples 9.4 (bar 1) and 9.6 (bar 5), and a Cyrillic n has ousted the final letter of vlasti in line 30 on page 203; keen eyesight is required of those wishing to read the Russian text incorporated in musical quotations from the score. As far as I am aware, there is one version, not two, of the Lullaby from the Songs and Dances of Death, though there are two versions of an earlier, independent Kolybel'naia (p. 310, n. 6). The name of the critic Yuly Engel' (also known as Joel Engel) emerges intact from the main text but in the index becomes Yury (p. 335).

For its wealth of information, interpretation, and insight, however, this book well deserves more than a second look--like its principal subject.

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Author:Campbell, Stuart
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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